Voting Is Not a Rational Choice

Is Our Political Behavior Based on Pure Emotion?

Max und Moritz by Wilhelm Busch Photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Wilhelm Busch / Wikimedia

We like to think we are rational beings. That our voting choices are based on a careful analysis of all those policy papers, websites and debates that the candidates participate in. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

Heaps of academic evidence now tell us that we vote, especially for president, based on emotion, on grievances, on tribalism, taste and on a set of biased moral judgments. None of it is based on reason or rationality.

In this week’s WhoWhatWhy conversation, Jeff Schechtman talks to Eyal Winter, who is a professor at the University of Leicester and the leader of the Center for the Study of Rationality of the Hebrew University. Winter says that while we crave ideology and we want our politicians to be ideologues, we simply see the ideology as a way for them to convey their personality to us.

He also talks about the “voting paradox.” The idea that the decision to make the effort to go out and vote is in itself an irrational decision. One that owes as much to entertainment and recreation as it does to politics. Given that, the result of the recent election should not surprise us.

Eyal Winter is the author of Feeling Smart: Why Our Emotions Are More Rational Than We Think. (Published by PublicAffairs, 2014)


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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy, I’m Jeff Schechtman. A couple of weeks ago over 126 million people voted in America in spite of the false argument that one vote makes a difference. And yet, after a 16-month campaign, it was as if the election itself was a national catharsis. Like most big elections, it was a gut check, not a process as many philosophers would have us believe about rational choice and policy papers, but about emotion, tribalism, identity politics and, yes, even a form of entertainment and recreation. It’s all part of what some would call the voting paradox. And we’re gonna talk about that today with my guest Eyal Winter. He’s a professor of economics at the University of Leicester, as well as the Center for the Study of Rationality at Hebrew University. He’s the author of the previous book, Feeling Smart: Why Our Emotions Are More Rational Than We Think. He’s one of the world’s leaders in the study of decision-making and has served as chairman of the economics department at Hebrew University. He has lectured in over 130 universities in 26 countries. And it is my pleasure to welcome Eyal Winter to Radio WhoWhatWhy. Eyal, thanks much for joining us.

Eyal Winter: Thanks, thanks Jeff. It’s nice talking to you.

Jeff: When one of the things that we see over and over again, particularly on a national level, is that elections do matter with respect to policy. And yet, the bottom line seems to be that that’s not what drives people to participate in them. Talk a little about that first.

Eyal: No that’s not what drives people to participate in elections. Why people vote, the reason why they vote, is because they belong to a tribe, they’re driven by emotions. The Clinton era, where we had this phrase, “It’s the economy dummy,” it doesn’t apply anymore. People don’t vote in order to improve their own economic situation or because of some sort of interest, self-interest, reasoning. We vote because we’re driven by emotions, by resentment, by loyalty, by pride, by frustration, and to some extent, also fear. And this is what actually triggered the support to Trump in the US, and to some extent the support of Brexit.

So I think the main issue which we are sort of [inaudible] is this famous German word, “Schadenfreude,”   the joy of having other people suffer. In the last several decades there’s an increased inequality between those who have and those who don’t have. And the way people react to it is by wanting this other group with more to suffer. Recently there has been a stunning number that I saw this morning in the Guardian, says the following, listen to this number, Brexit vote wipes $1.5 trillion off in UK household finances, only in 2016 alone.

Okay, and you ask yourself, why did these people vote to wipe out so much of their financing, and the answer is that this loss is not only divided across all the population, it’s those who have that pay more. And those who enjoy it are those that voted against it, and voted for Brexit. We have a lot of records, experimental records that show that people are willing to pay in order for other people to lose, especially when they feel that they are discriminated, that they are treated unequally, that there are people who earn more than them. People are willing to pay in order for other people to lose.

People are willing to some extent to burn money, preferring to burn money than having this money go to  other people who are richer than them. And this I think triggered both the support of Trump in the US and the support for Brexit in the UK, and potentially the forthcoming support to right-wing parties in other countries in the EU.

Jeff: Is this something that is a modern phenomenon? Is it something that is a part of our politics and of globalism today, or is this something that in your view and in your research is simply wired into democracy?

Eyal: It’s a recurring phenomenon. It’s not something totally new, resentment towards people who are doing better, substantially better, has been around for ages. This was the cause to some extent; this was the reason for the Communist Revolution in the beginning of the 20th century in the Soviet Union. This was the cause of the rise of Fascism and Nazism in Europe, has been around because there are periods in which inequality expands and other periods where inequality is shrinking. You tend to see these phenomena in periods in history where inequality is pronounced. And unfortunately, we are in such an era now. And this is to some extent the reaction to this era.

Jeff: One of the things that your research points out is the way in which the connection that moral choices, and moral philosophy, impact voting choices in ways that we might not expect.

Eyal: Ideology plays substantial role in voting. Ideology is also something that connects to emotions, and to more sentiments. But it’s not coming really from the rational aspect of moral sentiment. It’s more coming from feelings as part of a tribe, feeling as part of a group identity, wanting to identify with the group that thinks like you, and belongs to your ideology. So it’s not very much coming from a rational attitude to moral sentiment, it’s more coming from ideology that is hardwired in emotions.

Jeff: Is this why cultural issues have become such a large part of our politics today?

Eyal: Yes, because culture links very strongly to atavism, to your background.  And atavism is something that connects very, very strongly to identity, and this is why both atavism and culture in general play a substantial role in people’s decision about voting. It turns out that people vote very similarly within families, for instance, and we’ve seen social groups. So it’s very much the question, “where do you belong?” “who you feel yourself being part of?”

Jeff: One of the things you talk about is this idea of ideology, that we have this craving for ideology, that we need to attach to ideology, but it’s not ideology in the rational way, or in the philosophical way we might think about it. But that it is deeply embedded in emotion.

Eyal: Yes, there’s startling research evidence coming from political scientists who work together with geneticists that show that to some extent genetics can have some predictive power on whether people vote, right or left, whether you’re Republican or Democrat. And this is quite startling. But if you think about it, it’s not that surprising because we know that genetics has to do with personality, and we know that left and right are emphasizing different personality issues.

Left is about solidarity, is about community, is about sharing. Where the right is is about authority, to some extent about individualism. So people are trying to match the personality to ideological trends, and this actually gets them either to identify with left or right, depending on who they are. People try to match their identity or match their personality also to a political figure. So people who voted for Trump to some extent are similar in their personality to whatever person that Trump is representing.

So again, it boils down to identity and personality. And again these are the issues that affect our decisions about where to vote, or whom to vote for, more than our own interest and this is to some extent worrying because you want people to vote for somebody who is making the right decisions in terms of substance, not in terms of abstract ideology. But this is not going to happen.

Jeff: Given that, what are the chances, why do politicians even try to persuade voters if minds are so set given those outside forces that you’re talking about? What are the chances of even persuading anyone to vote differently than they might have started out at the beginning of an election campaign?

Eyal: Not much. And if you noticed in the recent election, again both in the US and in the case of Brexit, there hasn’t been a major population that moved from one side of the map to the other side of the map because of some people, or some newspaper, or media, or candidate convincing the major part of the voters that his or her policy makes more sense than the other one. So this is not happening. I think a lot of money is wasted on campaigns.

Campaigns are actually not effective, at least not in these recent elections. People are basically convinced about who they want to vote for from the outset and it wouldn’t change. There are some people who are borderline; it’s hard to estimate how significant this population is. But those people, and this is the vast majority who are more or less convinced at the beginning of the campaign, will remain convinced at the very end, and so to some extent campaigning is a waste of money.

Jeff: Talk a little bit about this notion of entertainment and the way in which that also plays a role in how people feel about participating in the voting process. That it has this kind of recreational aspect to it.

Eyal: Right, I had research done with [inaudible] in which we examined the turnout behavior in an election for governors. And what we found out, in cases where the polls were very close, turnout logically was much more substantial than in cases where there was a big gap between the winning party and the losing party. However the most interesting finding that we made was, in those cases where the polls were close, it was more those supporters of the majority party that turned out. Okay?

And we try to interpret this result. The best explanation that we found is that showing up, turning out for the election, is to some extent similar to showing up for a football match, or a baseball match. First of all, you will be more incentivized to attend if you expect the game to be interesting. And the game will be interesting if the two parties, the two teams, are very close in power, which is exactly what we’ve seen in action.

Secondly, you are likely to enjoy the game when you expect your team to win, rather than when you expect it to lose. It’s nice to see the game when your team is winning than when you see your team losing. This is a game that happens in elections. The turnout of the stronger party is typically greater than the turnout for the weaker one. We haven’t seen it so much in such a pronounced way in the current election. I think that in the current election one of the reasons why the polls were wrong in the prediction is that one thing they disregarded is — people often cheat in these polls.

One reason to cheat is that if you feel embarrassed to express a view that you think is unpopular, to some extent deviates from the social norm, and then some of Trump’s supporters were worried to admit that they were supporting Trump when they faced pollsters asking them, “Who are you going to vote for?”

But when they are behind the curtain taking the ballot, “Why should I care?” “Nobody sees me; I can be very truthful to myself and vote for whomever I want to give my vote.” So this aspect has been missed by the polls. And this is why they were wrong. They were wrong because they assumed that people are telling the truth.

There was a very nice experiment conducted several years ago here in Israel one day after a national election, where statisticians actually conducted a huge poll, following all the statistical requirements for an absolutely high-quality poll, but asked only one question. And this question was, “Did you turn out to vote or not?”

About 90% of the people answered, “Yes, of course.” When you looked at the actual turnout, it turned out that it was about 60%. So this shows you that about 30% were cheating. And of course they were cheating because it was not nice to say that you didn’t turn out. You’re supposed to turn out. People expect you to turn out. Likewise, many people felt that it was not nice to say that I’m a true supporter of Trump. Who wants to admit that he or she, especially she, is going to vote for somebody who is actually a sex offender, for one reason, right? And this is something that I think has been missed totally by the polls.

Jeff: One of the ironies in this, is this idea that while ideology is emotion-based as we’ve talked about before, that those that are elected claiming a specific ideology, often get boxed in by having to be true to that ideology, even though that was not the driving force that ultimately elected them.

Eyal: Yes, I think politicians are eager to show ideology because voters are suspicious about them for good reasons. Politicians through history have bad records of caring for their own interests, starting by appointing those close to them, down to those who are totally corrupt. Voters, to some extent, perceive ideology as the proof that the politician is going to care for them, rather than caring for his own interest. This is obviously wrong, and quite often politicians tend to portray themselves as being ideological in order to satisfy the craving by voters for ideology. But they manage to [inaudible] quite effectively those voters that are desperate for ideology as proof of the sincerity of the politician.

Jeff: Is there a cyclical nature to any of this when we have gone through periods where political decisions have been ruled so powerfully by emotions, as opposed to any kind of rationality? Do we then follow that with periods of rationality?

Eyal: I think politics and social life in parallel and run in cycles. Also when we talk about business cycles and economics, but there are also political cycles. And there are periods in which emotions drive us to such dark corners in life, such as Europe, 1939 -1945. And afterwards we become sober and we actually act in a more rational, in a more reasonable manner.

Sometimes you need this history shock, political shock, in order to discipline people and make them realize that things can go very dark when emotion alone determines politics. And hopefully things this time won’t become that dark, and people will become sensible again.

But yes, politics is running cycles not only in terms of emotion versus rationality, but also in terms of the right versus the left, Republican versus Democrats, liberals versus conservatives, and so on and so forth. People get disappointed from one type of [inaudible]. When it doesn’t work out, then they seek alternatives that might work better. This is the real goal at the end of the tunnel. When it goes wrong, people will eventually behave differently and correct it. It has been done since the beginning of history.

Jeff: Eyal Winter. Eyal, thanks for being with us on Radio WhoWhatWhy.

Eyal: Thank you Jeff, I enjoyed it.

Jeff: Thank you. Thank you for listening and joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast, I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate


Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Trump rally (Gage Skidmore / Flickr – CC BY-SA 2.0)

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